April 8, 2013
The allrounder is cricket's rarest of commodities, for he is a player good enough to hold his place in the side as a batsman or bowler alone. His skills are made valuable because he does both, meaning the side he's playing for can bolster its weakest suit with an extra player if needed. It's little wonder, then, that international sides all around the world will bend over backwards to try and accommodate a world-class allrounder in their XI. In recent times, however, a disturbing trend has emerged in Australian cricket. Players are being picked not on their skills as allrounders, but simply because they are allrounders. Now when this leaks through to the Test team, it becomes more detrimental to the side than helpful, because players are being picked without any experience and temperament, or runs and wickets behind them.
The Australian allrounder obsession is a quite recent development. The country's Test history has been accentuated by performances from some of the greatest all-round cricketers the world has seen. Names like Keith Miller, Jack Gregory, Monty Noble, Richie Benaud, and Alan Davidson spring to mind. These players were picked because of their all-round skills of course, but first and foremost because they could hold their place in the side as a batsman or bowler alone. Benaud and Davidson, two of the iconic cricketers of the 1960s, were in the side because they were among the best bowlers in the world, with the fact that they could score valuable middle-order runs a bonus rather than a necessity to their selection. Perhaps only Keith Miller of the aforementioned list can be classed as a proper allrounder, and is quite rightly mentioned in the same breath as Garry Sobers, Imran Khan, and Ian Botham.
But for the modern Australian side, there is a direct link with the performances of one Andrew Flintoff during the 2005 Ashes series. Flintoff was one of the deciding factors in the series. Not only did he deliver with important wickets and runs, he won England decisive moments over those five Tests, allowing them to knock off one of the most indestructible teams ever to have taken the field. Since then, Australian selectors have been searching high and low for the next Flintoff, investing in the careers of players who are not necessarily within the best eleven cricketers in the country. Let's call this the 'Flintoff Effect'.
The two most recent examples of this are the debuts handed out to Moises Henriques and Glenn Maxwell on Australia's disastrous tour of India. The point isn't that these players played, but that from the start of their careers they were earmarked as game-changing allrounders. Maxwell, to date, has only played a handful of first-class matches (none on spinning wickets like in India), while Henriques has been in the New South Wales' state team for seven years, and has only scored a single first-class century, that too in the recently concluded Sheffield Shield season. Quite simply, Henriques and Maxwell were taken to India on the basis of reputation or talent, rather than for being proven allrounders in the prime of their career who had spent a couple of seasons dominating the Australian domestic scene. And this was at the expense of a specialist batsman, which meant Matthew Wade or Brad Haddin had to bat at No. 6, thereby causing the batting line-up to be fragile. If not for useful contributions from lower-order batsmen like Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc throughout the series, the outcome could have been even more embarrassing.
Henriques and Maxwell are the most recent in a long line of so-called allrounders that have played Tests for Australia since the Flintoff Effect took hold. Victoria's captain Cameron White toured India last time as a leg-spinning allrounder, despite rarely having enough faith in himself to bowl in state cricket, while Andrew McDonald and John Hastings got debuts because their skills with the bat supplemented their honest (at best) medium-pacers. And Mitchell Johnson? Surely the only reason he is still hovering around the Australian side is because he scored a Test century once, since he's definitely not counted among the best dozen quicks in Australia, let alone the best four.
But the biggest beneficiary from the Flintoff Effect has to be Shane Watson. Watson was earmarked from a young age as being a world-class allrounder to take the Aussie side to the next level. He debuted against Pakistan in 2005, with modest results, and proceeded to spend the next few years injured. But it was his comeback against, incidentally, the English in the 2009 Ashes series that saw the Flintoff Effect at work: during this series, Watson was picked for the third Test at Edgbaston as an opening batsman, despite having very little experience as anything other than a middle-order bat in first-class cricket. Watson was added because he was deemed too valuable to leave out of the side, but the selectors couldn't justify shuffling a settled middle-order to accommodate him. So Phillip Hughes' fragile confidence was sacrificed.
Watson performed honestly throughout this series, and has since become a mainstay of the Australian side. However, four years down the track, Watson, who now plays as a specialist batsman, has only scored two Test hundreds, and averages in the early 30s since his last ton back in 2010.
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